Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Green Tech for the Consumer Market

If you were looking to find out how hot clean technology is in Silicon Valley these days, you only had to attend the Green Tech for the Consumer Market panel session hosted by the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab at Stanford's Bishop auditorium on Tuesday, January 22nd. As a volunteer for the event, I got to attend for free and it was well worth it :-) The Bishop auditorium was filled to its capacity of 324 with people standing in the aisles. VLAB events usually attract a good crowd, but this was exceptional. Of course, there was the usual gang of Stanford MBA students, but there were also a lot of VCs, investment bankers, lawyers and, of course, entrepreneurs.

The panel was moderated by John Rockwell of DFJ Element (Draper Fisher's clean tech investment arm) and included two VCs - Steve Westly of the Westly Group and John Denniston of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers and three Clean Tech entrepreneurs - Ron Gonen, CEO of RecycleBank, Michael Murray, CEO of Lucid Design Group and Frank Paniagua, CEO of Green Plug. Each of the entrepreneurs gave a brief introduction of their companies and product ideas and then the moderator posed a set of questions to the VCs on clean tech investments.

Ron Gonen talked about how RecycleBank works with cities to help increase their recycling rate and share the savings with the company. They have deployed pilots in Vermont and other East Coast cities, where they partner with a city and offer homeowners incentive points to increase their recycling. The recycling bins are outfitted with RecycleBank chips which calculate the weight of recycled material and award points to the homeowners which they can use to buy goods and services on the Internet. Sort of like airline miles, but based on the weight of material they recycle. This increases recycling in the city and saves the city landfill and other garbage costs. RecycleBank takes half the savings the city gains in this manner and also makes money off the advertising for the products sold off their awarded points. They have investment from partners like Coca Cola. You can view their demo here. In India, there were (still are?) people who used to come by your house to collect your old newspapers, bottles etc and sell these to shopkeepers and others for reuse. This is a fancier, scaled up American version of the idea with virtually no competition today and from the looks of it, destined to be a very successful company.

Michael Murray, CEO, presented for the Lucid Design Group. They make a Building Dashboard, which is an internet based application which monitors real time energy usage in a building. The idea is that if you are aware of how much energy is being used at various times in different areas of a building you will look for ways to reduce the usage. The implementation is rather impressive. There are various real time demos on their website which show off the capabilities of their software at various installations. The demo he showed of a dorm at Emory University was impressive in the range of options it had. I could not find it on the projects page, though. I am not surprised that Lucid Design Group won the CCTO's Smart Power Award this year.

Frank Paniagua, CEO of Green Plug described how his company is solving energy and material waste in consumer electronics products and other battery powered equipment by enabling an intelligent universal power supply. Today the DC power supplies for cell phones, laptops, iPods and a variety of devices are all different, and as a result a single family has a host of different power supplies. This is inconvenient for most people, not to mention redundant and expensive. Further, when these are discarded they generate toxic waste. Green Plug's intelligent power supply concept communicates with the devices which use DC power and supply only the exact power required. They also prevent overcharging and supplying power when not needed. Green Plug defines a digital protocol which makes realtime communication possible between devices and their power supply. It is implemented on a programmable microcontroller, but its also embeddable. They also license their Green Talk protocol and universal connector free of charge. A cool idea, but a tremendous challenge to implement since they have to not only support a wide range in AC voltage on the input side, but also a wide range of DC current and voltage on the output side. They also have to get a wide range of manufacturers and their devices to incorporate Green Plug technology in their power supplies. But, Frank Paniagua has solved a similar challenge before as co-founder of the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) which produces display standards to enable a wide range of devices to connect to displays worldwide. As a former Board member of VESA, I know how valuable that organization is today.

Following the excellent startup presentations, the moderator and audience posed a series of questions to the VCs on the panel. Steve Westly and John Denniston felt that the US was far behind Western Europe in adopting clean technology and alternative energy. They felt that Government subsidies were absolutely necessary to boost the emerging industry. They also felt that removing subsidies for fossil fuels and transferring them to alternative energy technology was a viable option.

They discussed what the VCs were looking for in funding companies. VCs are motivated by return on investment and looking at the companies which presented at this event, they noted how each one of them offered a unique advantage in waste reduction, energy awareness or convenience, but also strove to do it profitably. Different VCs have differing strategies for investment ranging from early stage and higher risk to later stage and lower risk. However, they agreed that most VCs today have a strong emphasis on clean technology investments. I could almost hear a room full of entrepreneurs whipping out their business plans :-)

Steve Westly commented that the opportunities in clean technology were just beginning and we are at a point of time similar to 1996 when the Internet boom had just started. Probably because of Steve Westly's political connections (he ran for Governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger) the questions and discussion centered on the political aspects of support for clean technology. In general, the panelists seemed to agree that regardless of who won the US Presidential election this year there would be more support for clean technology in the coming years. They also believe that in addition to new consumer devices using clean technology, many existing consumer devices will become more energy efficient and use cleaner methods of packaging and disribution.

Overall a most excellent panel and event.


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